Cher Public

Castrata Diva

Cecilia Bartoli’s latest vanity release bucks protocol to present an album heavy on historical concept.

The classical recording industry has long feasted on the popularity of operatic solo records, especially during the last few years of industry-wide decline in CD sales. Incidentally, as record companies run out of ways to sell the standard repertoire to collectors who already own it five times, baroque and early opera are also selling well. 

The coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has managed to combine both of these formats in her newest CD release.  Sacrificium is her take on twelve major arias from the lost repertoire of the Castrato. The CD has been marketed high and low, using the tag line “The Sacrifice of Hundreds of Thousands of Boys in the Name of Music” and through a viral internet scavenger hunt that planted riddles on blog sites.

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The packaging of the first release, a Deluxe 2-CD Limited Edition, includes an encyclopedic 200-page booklet exploring the Age of the Castrato, replete with gender-bending Photoshop experiments and 18th century kitsch, as well as a bonus CD featuring three more arias including the Handel favorite “Ombra mai fu.”

Sacrificium is clever both in its concept and as a way of refashioning Ms. Bartoli’s appeal and repertoire. In recent years she has gravitated toward recordings and concert performances (as many superstar vocal artists do), and has taken on fewer operatic parts. In live appearances, she sticks close to home, and continues to sing the mezzo repertoire of Mozart and Handel with aplomb and agility.

On CD, rather than just milk well-known favorites, she has admirably introduced audiences to forgotten repertoire from Rossini and composers little-known today like Halevy and Viardot. The composers included in Sacrificium include such household names as Porpora, Leo, Araia, Graun, Caldara, and (not that) Leonardo Vinci.

While there is much to be learned about the castrato from the ornate accompanying booklet, Bartoli’s singing lends few insights to authenticity.  Liner notes tell us that the castrati were not necessarily preferable to female singers; rather, they were simply easier to train. Add, too, that a boy could be trained from youth while a girl must wait until after puberty to find her voice, and we get an idea of the very luxurious attitude toward the sacrifice in question.

Ms. Bartoli’s singing here is practically beside the point. Her style has always meant a certain breathy quality, quite in evidence here. This has alienated opera house purists, yet it may be precisely her appeal in the vaguely crossover market she has come to occupy.  As her voice has aged, it has also tended toward an undesirable cluckiness in the lower register.  Sacrificium displays these flaws, and some pitch imprecision in her coloratura, but the singing is emotive, committed, attractively colored and – dare I say – fierce.

Her partners in this exercise are the eminent and thoroughly Italianate period group Il Giardino Armonico, led by Giovanni Antonini. They carry the day, with a lean and sensitive accompaniment that is never afraid to burst forth with uncouth rustic fervor when called upon. The recorded sound is sumptuous and especially gratifying in its spacious bass response.

Unfortunately Vinci’s “Chi temea Giove regnante,” one of many world-premiere recordings on this disc, is marred by a thunderbolt sound effect which upon repetition grows tiresome and then offensive. If only Ms. Bartoli and her producers had sacrificed this cheap effect – in the name of music.

La Cieca is happy to welcome Our Own squirrel to the ranks of parterre.com contributors.